Will not saying "gay" end The Achievement Plateau?
We have a Rainbow Club at my school. The club serves as an elementary version of a GSA (Gender & Sexuality Alliance). Students in grades 4-8 participate in the club.
I spoke recently with one of the teachers who sponsors the Rainbow Club and asked her about the stories some of the club’s participants share. She recounted the story of a 6th grade student whose parent is considering disowning her because of her sexual identity. In my 6 years as principal, I’ve heard several of these stories about students who, because of their gender or sexual identity, have severely strained relationships with their parents and suffer immensely as a result.
That suffering will likely be intensified in Florida — and across the country — now that the state passed its controversial “Parental Rights in Education” act, more commonly known as the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” bill.
Here’s the key clause from the actual bill: Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.
Let’s be clear: this law is an act of political performance, intended to whip up voters’ negative emotions towards transgenderism and homosexuality and drive them to the polls. Banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades K-3 — an ironic move in the face of all the current “freedom of speech” chatter — won’t help those students better learn math or how to decode complex words.
Instead, it will distract us from focusing on more meaningful reforms of our public education system while simultaneously breeding more hate and tribalism and implicitly telling certain students that they do not belong. It’s another unnecessary law created by a manufactured crisis, just like Virginia’s bill that attempted to ban Critical Race Theory from schools.
What’s really pernicious about this bill, though, is the inclusion of the above provision alongside others that focus on parental rights regarding students’ “mental, emotional, or physical health or well-being.” Aside from the bill’s suggestion that schools can teach kids to be gay or trans, it also implies that sexual orientation and gender identity are mental or emotional diseases. That fosters the mindset that “there’s something wrong with those people,” further stigmatizing the LGBTQ+ community and emboldening bullies.
The use of the phrases “developmentally-appropriate” and “age appropriate” is also misguided. We teach students about historical figures, like Christopher Columbus and George Washington, who were responsible for enslaving human beings. Students are regularly confronted with reports of gun violence. Heck, I see TikTok videos of toddlers asking about sexual organs that get millions of likes because they’re cute and funny but we can’t read a book about a family with two moms or two dads in first grade? Gimme a break. We can teach students about almost any topic in a developmentally appropriate way.
Beyond that, the idea that the bill is necessary because “parents should have a say in what their child gets taught” is also a reductive argument. Parents do get a say through local school board elections and school advisory committees. But let’s not confuse “having a say” with “getting to decide.” In situations in which controversial novels are presented in class, we often send home “opt-out” forms that allow parents to choose alternative units of study for their students. Schools could be pushed to give parents that option while not overtly ostracizing an entire group of human beings. And for parents who want to wholly control what their child is taught, homeschooling exists. Those options weren’t considered because, again, this is a political ploy: a statewide ban on instruction is unnecessary and reeks of the fascism that has overtaken Russia.
In fact, I have yet to hear a salient argument about why teaching sexual orientation or gender identity isn’t developmentally appropriate. I listened to a Dave Rubin podcast on the bill, hoping the conservative commentator (who is, himself, gay) would explain why this is good for students. Rubin simply brushed it off saying, “Kids don’t care about that stuff.” He spent the vast majority of the 39-minute episode telling listeners ranting about masks, even suggesting that people who impose mask mandates on children are child abusers.
If you’re still struggling with the complex of non-binary gender identities — and I know many many folks are because it adds grayness to a concept we’ve been taught is simply black and white — I’d encourage you to listen to this TED Talk. According to the speaker, around 2% of the population is biologically “intersex,” roughly the same percentage of redheads. Imagine a law prohibiting teachers from discussing hair color in elementary grades.
Identity is also a curious thing. I’m a white, cisgender, heterosexual male. I don’t think about my racial, sexual, or gender identity often, and it’s pretty easy for me to offer it up when necessary. The Rainbow Club’s teacher, though, explained that gender and sexuality identity can be even more complicated for students who, because of their mixed racial identity, aren’t sure how to respond when asked about their identity.
Without proper education that affirms the wide range of identities, those students at the margins will get even more marginalized — not the better education they deserve — and suffer unnecessarily as a result.
Thanks for reading. Have a great Teacher Appreciation Week.